You wake up in the morning, brew a savory cup of coffee, and head out to the front porch for a sip as you watch the sun rise.
Some Philadelphia residents need to take a few important steps before they can savor their morning drink. They must:
- Pick needles and syringes out of their potted plants.
- Hose urine from the front steps.
- Shoo away strangers sleeping in the yard.
- Call the police to report unconscious people on the sidewalk.
For these Philly residents, the drug problem is both real and pressing. But it’s a mistake to believe that substance abuse is confined to just a few neighborhoods. Throughout the state, people are using drugs and dying from their use. And the substances they choose are varied.
Philadelphia addiction statistics are both stark and sobering. But when it comes to addiction, enhanced knowledge is critical. The more you know about how addiction touches your community, they better prepared you’ll be when drugs affect someone you love.
Painkiller Abuse in Philadelphia
It’s impossible to talk about Philly substance abuse without mentioning painkillers. Many cities across the United States are struggling with rising rates of addiction to substances like Vicodin and OxyContin, but Philadelphia has been hit particularly hard.
Opioid painkillers are central nervous system depressants. They slow down breathing and heart rates, leading to a coma-like state that’s accompanied by vomiting. Without swift intervention, people overdosing on painkillers can die. In Philadelphia, death rates are among the highest in the nation.
In 2016, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts, 46 people in 100,000 died due to drug overdoses in Philadelphia. Most of those deaths are attributed to opioid painkillers.
That’s the second-highest overdose rates researchers found in the United States.
Overdoses aren’t always fatal. Bystanders can give a drug called Narcan, which can:
- Block drugs from attaching to receptors.
- Trigger immediate drug withdrawal.
- Spark consciousness almost immediately.
- Reverse the drug’s impact on the cardiovascular system.
In 2018, the city handed out 21,000 Narcan doses in Philadelphia, according to The Inquirer. That helped to reduce death rates from 1,217 in 2017 to 1,100 in 2018.
Fewer deaths are cause for celebration. But Narcan isn’t a treatment for addiction. People who don’t overdose can — and often do — go right back to drug use. Sometimes, they awaken from an overdose and switch to a different drug.
Heroin Abuse in Philadelphia
Heroin and prescription painkillers are structurally similar. Both work on the same brain receptors and deliver euphoria. But heroin is often stronger than a painkiller, and in Philadelphia, it might be easier to get.
Neighborhoods like Kensington are notorious for their open-air drug markets. According to coverage in The New York Times, people come from all across the country to buy heroin at low prices ($5 per bag) without fear of a strong police presence.
Drive through these neighborhoods, and you’ll see:
- Used needles.
- Lots of garbage.
- Intoxicated people.
- Dealers hawking wares.
Police work to close these markets, but the problem persists. People move to a new location when their preferred spot closes, and they resist the idea of rehab when drugs are both cheap and plentiful.
Even so, officials warn, most overdose deaths don’t take hold in public spaces. Instead, most deaths due to both painkillers and heroin happen in private residences. People take painkillers for an injury or illness, the addiction worsens, they switch to heroin, and they overdose. These are office workers, gardeners, churchgoers, and parents. They may not showcase their addiction in public, but it’s still an issue.
Other Drugs of Concern
Painkillers and heroin grab the lion’s share of attention from the media and policymakers. But many other substances have addiction experts in Philadelphia concerned.
Those additional drugs include:
- Alcohol. In 2015, according to city records, more than 1,300 people entered addiction treatment programs due to an alcohol issue. That makes drink the top addictive substance at play in the city.
- Fentanyl. A potent painkiller that’s easy for dealers to buy, fentanyl is remarkably strong. When added to heroin, the effect is overwhelming. Fentanyl was responsible for 87 percent of overdose deaths in the city in 2017, according to The Guardian.
- Tramadol. This opioid painkiller is rarely mentioned in news articles about abuse. But according to official reports, its presence in seizures and drug exhibits rose 100 percent between 2016 and 2017. Researchers suggest that dealers are offering tramadol to buyers when oxycodone or hydrocodone drugs aren’t available.
- Methamphetamine. This stimulant drug is relatively easy to make in a clandestine laboratory, and it delivers a powerful high. News reports suggest that Philadelphia meth is sometimes mixed with fentanyl, and in June 2018, three people died due to this mixture. None of these users realized that the drugs they were taking contained fentanyl.
- Benzodiazepines. These prescription drugs are designed to ease symptoms of anxiety and stress. Opioid users mix in these substances to deliver a more sedating, long-lasting high. The Inquirer reports that a third of Philadelphia overdoses in 2017 were due to a benzo/opioid mixture.
People in Philadelphia display a mature form of drug taking. They mix and match their substances to deliver a custom high that is either more sedating or more stimulating than one they’d get if they took just one substance.
But clearly, many people lose their lives due to their habits. City and state officials are worried about that rising death rate — and the impact it has on the state’s reputation — and they’re looking for innovative ways to respond.
Curbing the Addiction Crisis
City officials identified drug-dense areas, and they swept in to remove and rehabilitate residents. Before places like Kensington were closed from public access, officials notified residents and offered them the opportunity to move into supportive housing and access addiction care. This is part of a two-pronged approach to addiction reduction. The other part involves law enforcement.
Pennsylvania has very strict laws concerning drug use and possession. If you’re caught with:
- Marijuana, 2 to 10 pounds comes with one year in prison and a fine of $5,000 or more.
- Narcotics, 2 to 10 grams comes with two years in prison and a fine of $5,000 or more.
- Cocaine, 2 to 10 grams comes with one year in prison and a fine of $5,000 or more.
Fines and prison terms go up if you have larger amounts or if you’ve been convicted of a drug crime in the past.
Even possessing items you might use to take drugs, like needles or tourniquets, could land you in legal trouble.
And selling drugs to others, and getting caught in the act of making a sale, could get you in even more trouble.
Philadelphia officials seem to know that they can’t arrest their way out of a drug problem. But they seem eager to prove to the community that they’re cracking down on the behavior and hoping to clean up the city. So far, there has been no move to reduce sentences or show leniency to those with an addiction problem.
Where does that leave your family?
If you’re touched by an addiction, you must take action. The legal system in the state is not designed for compassionate care. You’ll lose your freedom, your wealth, or both. You must get treatment to repair the damage so you can protect what’s yours.